Strategies & Tactics

Are You Getting Your Money’s Worth From Research?

January 5, 2018

[ikon images]
[ikon images]

As we head into the new year, let’s resolve to be much smarter about how we use research to drive strategy. Many organizations appear rich in data and research, but poor in the analysis and strategy that should result. Solving that problem will be a focus of this column throughout 2018.

Several times a year, I meet a longtime association executive for breakfast. During our last meal we discussed how to get the most from money spent on research. We were viewing the topic through a membership-organization lens, but the principles are pretty universal. Here’s an abbreviated version of our chat, framed by the association executive’s questions and comments with my replies:

Lots of membership organizations do studies of their membership. How do they get the greatest value from that investment?

I see many organizations spending lots of money on studies that tell them whether their membership is happy. But what’s more important is how to keep them happy, how to improve satisfaction, how to get them to recommend membership to others and to buy more services. In other words, we should use research as a tool for improvement, rather than to measure moments in time.

But associations tend to have limited budgets and staff resources. 

That’s why it’s even more important to make your research dollars count and get actionable data. In fact, these kinds of analyses aren’t a lot more expensive than your plain-vanilla, report-card research. I’ve worked with many trade and membership organizations that are already collecting the data they need for more prescriptive analyses, but they aren’t connecting all the dots. Or, they have a pretty good questionnaire, but with some minor tweaking could get way more mileage.

Specifically, what kinds of mileage can they get from a membership study?

If you are buying a membership study, then its results should help you decide what products and services to add, drop or improve. It should help you determine how to reduce retention and recruitment costs and understand how to be seen as an industry leader. The results should give you the foundation for a strategic plan, and the ability to create different personas that represent clusters of membership types.

In other words, if your research is not telling you and your board where to place your bets and with whom, you are wasting your money. 

How does staff fit into that picture?

We usually conduct employee research to measure their satisfaction, engagement and morale. Those findings are important, but it’s even better to link them to a membership study. Doing so tells us whether the factors that drive member satisfaction and loyalty are the same things that employees consider important. If your members want one thing and your employees feel they should be doing something else, then you need to address that gap.

Speaking of gaps, what kinds of disparities should research be able to show us?

Research should reveal gaps in performance versus importance. In other words, you can ask your members to identify and rank what they consider important — and then ask them how well you are delivering on those items. Organizations are sometimes ranked poorly on a member benefit, but if members don’t really value that benefit to begin with, then the real message might be to drop it.

What you describe sounds a whole lot like brand or reputation.

Good membership research and brand research are very similar. Good brand research helps you figure out how to build a brand, bring it to market, set a price, segment your customers, etc. Membership research should be approached with a very similar mindset. You need to run your association like a business.

Do focus groups have a role in this process? 

Focus groups can be very valuable to help explain the “why” behind the “how much” that survey research provides. There are online bulletin-board methods that in some ways do both kinds of research. Focus groups are great complements to surveys and can even help you design the questionnaire better. They can help you quickly sort things out when you know you have a problem, but don’t know why. 

David B. Rockland, Ph.D.

David Rockland, Ph.D., retired as CEO of KGRA on July 31, 2017, but continues as part-time chairman. He and his wife, Sarah Dutton, who recently retired from CBS News, have also started their own research and consulting firm to work with Ketchum and other clients at


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